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Newport News Shipyard Captures 'Pokemon Go' Technology

NEWPORT NEWS -- For Newport News Shipbuilding, the technology behind Pokemon Go is so 2011.

Don't panic. Engineers and skilled workers at this secure nuclear shipyard have not morphed into distracted, wandering monster hunters. No one has called for the next aircraft carrier to bear the name USS Pikachu.

But the basic technology that allows smartphone users to find digital characters in the real world has taken on a practical and serious role in shipyard operations.

It is called augmented reality, or AR.

Football fans see augmented reality as the down-and-distance marker overlaid on the field during TV broadcasts. Thanks to Pokemon Go, augmented reality has roared into the mainstream world as gamers wander the streets in search of collectible characters that pop up on the landscape.

A recent story in USA Today cited an estimate of 7.5 million-plus downloads of the game on Apple's App Store and Google Play.

The story ran under the headline "With Pokemon Go, augmented reality is having its moment."

At the shipyard, that moment occurred in 2011, when the shipyard began exploring ways to improve operations by delivering digital information to the workforce, said Patrick Ryan, manager of augmented reality engineering.

"We quickly realized there was a lot of value beyond that," he said

Now Ryan has a steady diet of ongoing projects, and it promises to grow as the yard relies more on digital information and less on conventional blueprints. Its goal is to make CVN-80, the future USS Enterprise, the first-ever "paperless" aircraft carrier.

Ryan rejects the term evolution -- it's more of a revolution. And selling a revolution is never easy.

"Augmented reality replaces drawings," he said. "It brings cameras into the shipyard and it puts computers in the hands of everybody. You couldn't pick something more disruptive to our business. This is not some evolution. This is a major, fundamental change in the business. Because of that, it crossed lots of peoples' areas of responsibility, and you have to get buy-in from lots of different people. it was a terribly hard thing to do. It took us years to get there."

Now in 2016, the company can show off videos of shipbuilders with decades of yard experience warmly embracing the computer tablet as easily as a wrench or a torch.

The shipyard, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, is the nation's sole designer and builder of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and one of two yards that supplies nuclear attack submarines. With greater scrutiny on defense budgets, the company faces constant pressure to cut costs, streamline operations and increase efficiency.

Success translates into a stronger national defense and the prospect of more local jobs. The Newport News shipyard is Virginia's largest industrial employer and a major pillar of the Hampton Roads economy.

It makes AR a very serious business.

Promising projects

Consider this example from the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford, the first-in-class ship where construction is essentially complete.

One aspect of building an aircraft carrier involves installing temporary steel, then removing it. Typically, that process requires paging through huge stacks of drawings to find the temporary steel. But most of that can be represented in a digital format. Through AR, a model can be created that shows all the temporary structures as green, with permanent steel and foundations in different colors.

Loaded onto a computer tablet, it becomes an incredible time saver.

"You walk into a compartment and look around for the green things," Ryan said. "You confirm it's there or not. We conducted thirty-six hours of inspections in 90 minutes with AR. It's about a 95 percent cost-and-schedule takeout."

One day, Ryan said, shipyard workers could don 3-D glasses and, using their index fingers, "click" in the air to access different digital overlays as they view a compartment or a watertight door. That technology exists now -- it's on display in his office area -- but the shipyard must first overcome safety concerns about workers wearing the glasses as they navigate the yard.

Ryan smiles as he tamps down concern that every rigger or shipfitter will have a heads-up display -- a la a certain superhero.

"There's this perception ... that I'm competing with Iron Man. Let's turn every shipbuilder into Iron Man. I don't want to do that. I want to get rid of drawings. My competition isn't Iron Man. That may be some future goal. My competition is paper documentation."

Beyond the Navy and shipbuilding

In January 2015, two former Newport News shipbuilding executives formed a startup called Index AR Solutions. Headquartered in Williamsburg, it aims to bring the efficiencies of AR to utilities, construction companies, refineries and other medium to large private-sector businesses.

It could allow a company executive to aim a computer tablet toward a parcel of vacant land and see the new headquarters building pop up Other commercial applications mirror how shipyard executives envision AR, for training, inspecting systems or troubleshooting problems.

The challenge for Index AR has been to educate and demystify the technology as it seeks business in the private sector.

When they started 18 months ago, almost no one knew the basics of AR, said Dexter Lilley, vice president and chief operating officer. That changed as months went by. In the past six months, Index AR executives have met more sophisticated buyers who had experimented with the technology.

They believe Pokemon Go will not just accelerate the learning curve. It will demolish it.

"I think what's going to happen with this Pokemon craze," said Lilley, "we no longer will have anyone that hasn't heard of it or hasn't seen it. So those two hurdles are behind us now. They all know what it is. They have all heard about it. It's changed the landscape forever, this whole Pokemon craze, because now everyone knows what augmented reality is."

Dan Arczynski, Index president and CEO, said Pokemon Go is a form of consumer augmented reality. And it has created billions of dollars in market value for game maker Nintendo.

"Augmented enterprise -- that's for companies -- is going to be bigger," he said.

Index has attempted to quantify just how big in a recently released report, "A Perspective on the Future of Augmented Reality." It forecasts a $6 billion industry by 2021, growing by leaps and bounds over the next decade to reach $105 billion by 2031.

"We're still educating, but on a different level now," Lilley said. "We're not teaching AR 101. We're teaching intermediate AR or even advanced, in some cases."

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